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Truman and the Jews By: William Safire
New York Times | Tuesday, July 15, 2003


A 5,500-word diary in President Harry Truman's handwriting, unnoticed for decades, recently turned up at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. Three pages were mysteriously loose and interleaved in the journal.

On these detached and reinserted pages was this entry: "6:00 P.M. Monday July 21, 1947. Had ten minutes conversation with Henry Morgenthau about Jewish ship in Palistine [sic]. Told him I would talk to Gen[eral George] Marshall about it."

On that day, news reached the world that 4,500 Jewish refugees seeking entry to Palestine aboard the ship Exodus 1947 had been seized by British soldiers. These "displaced persons" had been placed on three vessels ostensibly headed to nearby Cyprus for detention until permitted entry to the Holy Land, where other Jews waited to welcome them. Instead, the homeless families, including a thousand children, were encaged on decks being taken back to a hostile Europe.

"He'd no business, whatever to call me," Truman wrote. Morgenthau, who had served as F.D.R.'s treasury secretary, was telephoning Truman as chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, and had an obligation to get through to the president to stop this further atrocity.

"The Jews have no sense of proportion," wrote the incensed Truman after he hung up, "nor do they have any judgement on world affairs. Henry brought a thousand Jews to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed." These refugees were welcomed in Oswego, N.Y., just after the war, and Truman saw political implications in Gov. Thomas E. Dewey's support for Jewish immigration: "When the country went backward — and Republican in the election of 1946, this incident loomed large on the D[isplaced] P[ersons] program."

Then the president vented his spleen on the ethnic group trying desperately to escape from Europe's hatred: "The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as DP as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog."

After equating the cruelty of Jews with that of Hitler and Stalin, Truman waxed philosophic about ingratitude: "Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I've found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes."

Truman wrongly assumed that the plight of all of Europe's displaced was the same — ignoring the "special treatment" Hitler had inflicted on the Jews of the Holocaust, resulting in six million murdered, genocide beyond all other groups' suffering. The homeless survivors now faced sullen populations of former neighbors who wanted no part of the Jews' return.

This diary outburst reflected a longstanding judgment about the ungrateful nature of the oppressed; in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, he repeated that "Jews are like all underdogs. When they get on top they are just as intolerant and as cruel as the people were to them when they were underneath."

Did this deep-seated belief affect Truman's policy about taking immigrants into the U.S., or in failing to urge the British to allow the Exodus refugees haven in Palestine? Maybe; when the National Archives release was front-paged last week in The Washington Post, historians and other liberals hastened to remind us that the long-buried embarrassing entry was written when such talk was "acceptable." The director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum dismissed it as "typical of a sort of cultural anti-Semitism that was common at that time."

For decades, I have refused to make such excuses to defend President Nixon for his slurs about Jews on his tapes. This is more dismaying.

Lest we forget, Harry Truman overruled Secretary of State George Marshall and beat the Russians to be first to recognize the state of Israel. The private words of Truman and Nixon are far outweighed by their pro-Israel public actions.

But underdogs of every generation must disprove Truman's cynical theory and have a duty to speak up. I asked Robert Morgenthau, the great Manhattan D.A., about Truman's angry diary entry, and he said, "I'm glad my father made that call." 


William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.


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